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Is genetics changing what it means to be human?

By D Gareth Jones - posted Thursday, 18 November 2004

Genetics and humility - a contradiction in terms?

The world of genetics can be intensely misleading, since it lends itself to oversimplification. Images of “designer babies”, the rampant cloning of famous and infamous individuals, and the engineering of our very essence through outlandish genetic manipulation serve to mislead theologically as well as scientifically. So does talk of techno-eugenics, the segregation of what some writers refer to as “GenRich” individuals from mere “Naturals”, re-designing the human species, the emergence of genism, and the creation of posthumans. Such images fire the imagination, but do nothing for serious debate and analysis.

Discussion of topics like choosing our children’s genes tends to revolve around choosing genes for fair hair, blue eyes, intelligence, physique, good looks, avoiding baldness, or whatever. The ephemeral nature of these longings only serves to demonstrate their superficiality, let alone the scientific precision, clinical complexities and expensive resources that would be required to achieve them. Unfortunately, instead of demythologising such fantasies as empty claims, they are taken seriously and are used to construct tirades against realistic and therapeutically based genetic choice. The latter can then be dismissed on the ground that its goal is that of producing perfect babies, designed to order. These twin themes of perfectibility and designer babies carry powerful negative theological overtones, with their message that science is assuming redemptive powers; salvation can be found in biological manipulation; and the hope of a better life emanates from genetic intervention.

Christians rightly reject any such paradigms grounded in such quasi-scientific aspirations. The trouble is that these paradigms are based on little more than irresponsible journalistic hype (sometimes aided and abetted by scientists who should know better).


The position I take is to argue that the Christian task should be that of debunking this fatuous mythology, and not using it to frighten and mislead the faithful. To use it as the foundation on which to construct a case against genetic intervention in the name of Christ, is to fall into the same trap as those who look for a biological version of the new heavens and new earth. While the intentions of these two groups are radically different, they both accept the hubris implicit within a scientific vision that assumes that nothing lies outside its manipulatory abilities.

Starting from a baseline like this, any assessment (Christian or otherwise) of the prospects opened up by genetic intervention, will be mired in opposition to them. The rationale of this opposition is rejection of hubris rather than an analysis of the prospects opened up by serious genetic science. Neither does rejection of this ilk stem, of necessity, from the application of biblical principles, even acknowledging the problems encountered in their interpretation in a contemporary area like this one.

My standpoint is that the rejection of hubris (valid as it may be as a general principle) should not be the Christian’s starting point. It is far more relevant that we embrace humility, since it is this alone that enables a rigorous assessment of the merits of what can and cannot be accomplished by genetic science.

Does genetic manipulation stand in opposition to God’s purposes?

There is a feeling that somehow fiddling with genes is an intrusion into the locus of what makes us human. Genes are different; some even refer to them, or at least DNA, as sacred. Listen to one such concern:

We stand today at a crossroads where quite literally the future of the human race is at stake. I do not mean the survival of the human race, but something more sinister: the altering of the very concept of what it means to be human. The issue is not whether future generations shall live; the issue is what future people – if we call them such – shall be like. (Erwin W Lutzer, 2003)

These words by a Christian pastor encapsulate the theological as well as social concerns raised by any intrusion into the genetic make-up of human beings. It is an intrusion too far, no matter what the motives or intentions. And it is in this context that one encounters Christian writers who see virtue in what is sometimes referred to as the genetic lottery, the uncertainty that lies at the core of normal human reproduction. Some regard such uncertainty as being central to the maintenance of human dignity, in part perhaps because this is where God’s influence reigns supreme. This leads to the stance that manipulation of this realm is deeply antithetical to Christian aspirations, putting as it does unwarranted control into human hands.


What we emerge with, then, is a clear illustration of science and theology pulling in opposite directions. And so we are presented with a modern-day illustration of the well worn “science-religion warfare” metaphor. You can have genetic control or God’s control, but not both. Which do you choose: to be a slave to secular science or a faithful follower of Christ? In my view, this choice is disastrous and totally unwarranted.

After all, when the genetic lottery goes seriously wrong, resulting in distressing diseases, we attempt to rectify what has gone wrong. Conventionally, this is done indirectly, by manipulating the results of the genetic errors using conventional medical approaches. But is there any difference in principle between this and directly influencing genetic combinations? Both are forms of control.

Underlying all such niceties is a more fundamental query, and this is whether or not we are prepared to accept what the genetic lottery turns up. The history of medicine and medical intervention suggests that we are not prepared to do this. Diseases galore have been tackled, even though many of them have genetic bases. Consequently, to accept whatever the genetic lottery doles out is genetic fatalism, and a rejection of the wholeness of human existence. There is no difference in principle between the genetic lottery, the accident lottery or the environmental lottery. There are chance elements in all three, and all three may have dire repercussions for the character of human life. We either tackle all three, or we ignore all three.

In principle, there is nothing sacrilegious about modifying DNA or any processes at the commencement of human life; they have the potential for extending the work of God, as long as the modification is guided by the well being of humans. Such creativity accords with God’s creative activity in nature.

This is not carte blanche for carrying out every modification imaginable at the genetic level, any more than it would be at any other level. Discernment is always required, and a weighing of possibilities is always called for. This is not an argument that everyone should be born “normal”, since obsession with the normal is itself a stumbling block. There is no ideal in human existence, and there is no genetic ideal to be approximated. Genetically, we are all flawed in various ways, and the interaction between combinations of genes that seem to be beneficial and those that seem to be deleterious is intimate and complex. To look for a genetically perfect human ideal is not only to treat humans as unchanging, but to ignore our human creatureliness and the randomness of all new genetic combinations. A Christian perspective is far more realistic than this with its concern for the weak and disadvantaged, the unlovely and the impoverished, the outsiders and the downtrodden.

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This is an edited version of a  paper delivered at the CASE/ISCAST joint forum at New College, University of New South Wales,  November 11, 2004 and published on the CASE site.

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About the Author

D. Gareth Jones is Professor of Anatomy at the University of Otago, New Zealand, and author of a number of books on medical ethics.

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